The original concept, pre-pandemic, was a cocktail bar. “The interior would be a full-on sensory experience; it has texture and eye-candy everywhere. We tried to add a bunch of elements; social activities for everyone to participate in together,” explains Kal.
Babylon Lounge, as it was intended, had to go through multiple changes and adjustments when the pandemic threw a wrench (actually, multiple wrenches) into their plans. They tried to open in October last year, when they found out that insurance companies weren’t willing to let them buy liquor liability insurance. After giving up on selling alcohol and changing their name to Babylon Quick Fix, they were finally able to open in February 2021.
“We’re still trying to give a sensory experience,” Kal says of the menu. “We’re trying to stand out, be a little bit different. Our food is very geared towards being photogenic.”
One eye-catching element is the buns the hotdogs and paninis come in - they are pink. “I knew we were going to use pink buns before I knew what the business was going to be called,” Kal explains. He saw the idea on Instagram and thought it would be a great way to differentiate themselves.
“We get them made locally from Five Star Bakery,” Jana says. “The colour gives you a different perception,” Kal adds.
“Any time we have a good idea, we say, ‘That’s great, but how do we make it weird,’” he explains. “We added glitter to one of our hot dogs,” Jana says.
The unusual approach extends to the (non-alcoholic) drinks menu. Kal is a career bartender, and it was natural for him to start mixing different flavours and options. The house-made lemonade and ginger beer are very popular, and there are a variety of additional flavours you can add. (Chocolate chip cookie dough flavour, anyone? There’s peanut butter flavour, too.)
The response has been overwhelming, the two say. “We definitely love the city we live in; Thunder Bay has shown us a lot of love and support so far.”
The support comes not only from people ordering their food; it also comes from other business owners in the neighbourhood. When their oven broke 20 minutes before opening night, John Murray of the Red Lion Smokehouse offered them the use of his kitchen to save the weekend. Locals supporting local is what keeps the Merkleys going. “Even the restaurants, it’s not like a competitive environment,” Kal says.
He remembers several years ago hearing the owner of the Black Pirates Pub saying that every business in the area just helps everyone else out. “That’s a mentality that’s shared with businesses down here,” he says.